:: Article

Béla Tarr’s Turin Horse

By Richard Marshall.

“In Turin on 3rd January, 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche steps out of the doorway of number six, Via Carlo Alberto. Not far from him, the driver of a hansom cab is having trouble with a stubborn horse. Despite all his urging, the horse refuses to move, whereupon the driver loses his patience and takes his whip to it. Nietzsche comes up to the throng and puts an end to the brutal scene, throwing his arms around the horse’s neck, sobbing. His landlord takes him home, he lies motionless and silent for two days on a divan until he mutters the obligatory last words, and lives for another ten years, silent and demented, cared for by his mother and sisters. We do not know what happened to the horse.”

Some catastrophes are unknown. Some are unknowable.

Knowledge of catastrophe is limited by our imagination which is not limitless. For Nietzsche we think only in the form of language and are trapped by prejudices inherited from this to believe that distinctions of subject/predicate, cause/effect, noun/verb and so on are ontologically grounded, that they are in some tight isomorphic relationship with reality. Not only do these prejudices isolate us from knowing the world, we are isolated from ourselves too. The practices and conventions that give us practical guidance to make sense of our own linguistic meaning, sans Wittgenstein’s over-optimistic assumption that such meanings must be shared, all those personal idiolects, adjusted vocabularies and syntax that detach us from any default convention in order to respond to local circumstance leave us with fragile, lonely and private worlds.

Tarr’s film dwells for as long as it can with two characters whose isolation is stripped down to an abject extreme. The regularities of their trapped behaviours – feeding the horse, being dressed and dressing, eating squalid potatoes, drawing water from the well, these are repetitive sequences of primitive solutions to the universal problem of how to coordinate and communicate beliefs and actions. And the catastrophe that unfolds, the storm blowing like the ash of a burning universe, is a dark matter that dissolves each grim uniformity, every regularity, and in so doing wrecks any scantily dressed default understanding of reality, self and communication. Tarr portrays this as an event that occurs across an extreme boundary. It is a catastrophe that remains beyond them. It dissolves the world into pitch.

History goes on only to the limit of our comprehension because it is about us. A history that wasn’t our history would be incomprehensible. The world that isn’t our world too. Physics is included in this, for physics is guided by the overweening belief in truth as its ultimate value. And all values come from us. If not, where else? This philosophical position is historicist, archeological, anthropological and genealogical. It is the soul of Nietzsche’s nihilism. Husserl similarly was a nihilist when he declares geometry a human device linked to our practical needs and activities. So too was Marx a nihilist when he said that to understand science we had to understand its social genesis. Nihilism isn’t a belief but is rather the default process of modernity.

Our measurement of value is the life. Where catastrophe strikes the values we live by become disorientated, blind, and stupid. Nothing survives the transvaluation of values because the catastrophe strikes at the very heart of the life that is identical with its values. Here is an example of Nietzsche’s thought that we are trapped by linguistic form. Language makes it seem that there is a life and attached some values. But this is wrong, according to Nietzsche. Life and values are one and the same thing. In a boring sense, the relationship is analytic.

Tarr produces the sense of dread that accompanies the catastrophe. It covers the land – which is always the land as you know it, the land as it used to be, the land in which there was hope of its future spreading out. The momentous opening of the film, the extended shot of the horse as will, powering along through the landscape, dominating the world in a freedom of movement that asserts the ‘this is this’ identity of noun and verb, this is the affirmation of life asserting its own continuation and on its own terms no matter how disorganized, incoherent and crazy. Here is a life and its world and in its furious energy and movement everything is going one way – this way, not that way. And if that includes waste, degeneration, decay and death, well, in the vast momentum of the film’s opening there’s no hint of fear that we are not free to remain young, that no institution can abolish age, nor vice nor disease nor any sense that to do so would be to abolish us. Every value is there in that impressive object, its gigantic shape and process so aligned to establish what infernal will has imposed and made.

Horror and ghost stories hint at the ineffable but do so to transmit a sense of an uncanny disjunct in the audience or readership. To do so they press the known and knowable up against something that is inexplicable. The frisson is created by this jarring of incommensurates. The audience experiences the oddness of the situation as one of threat and a sinister discontinuity within the mundane. In the film ‘The Innocents’ the appearance of the spectral woman standing on the lake is a chilling moment where the bright sunshine, daylight itself, is placed in the service of something immeasurably evil and dark. But it is placed within a narrative which gives us what stands on the outside of the image. We are given resources to feel what the dread figure means and who or what it is. The narrative gives us enough from the outside of itself to allow us to suspect that this is a psychology going wrong alongside the quicker nod to the supernatural. And so such stories are told from the outside.

Not so ‘The Turin Horse.’ Here we are presented with a catastrophe with neither inside nor outside. It is as close to punching a hole through to another side, neither inside nor outside, as you get. It is a continuation to Beckett’s nothing and silence. We see a catastrophe is happening and we have no idea what its nature is, not even when it started nor whether it ever ends. The utter dark at the end of the film is where the limit of comprehensibility is reached and nothing more can be said from the perspective of humanity. We would have to be more refined to go on. Béla Tarr is as refined as perhaps the human spirit can be before it gives way. And so he presents us with the moment a world passes away. It is at the point that the holy spirit of life that holds the ever changing world together nods off. That is a metaphor but you get the gist.

The bearded man and his woman – maybe daughter – who each day live through a fixed routine as if holding existence in a form of sturdy equilibrium, holding it to a harsh purpose of their own making, find the world of their routines withdrawing daily. A storm rages outside an increasingly interior fix. The wind roars out an accumulating perspective of drowning noise – for the circumstances of their life quickly fall into that of a predicament, a plight – and covers the land with mystery which will eventually be nothingness. Something else is happening. It is the incomprehensibility of that ‘else’ that Tarr films.

‘The world exists; the world is not something that becomes, it is not something that passes. Or rather: it becomes, it passes – but it never started to become, and it never stopped passing … The world lives on itself: its excrement is its nourishment…’ writes Nietzsche. The idea of a world that begins and ends is the futile teleological hope of the escape artist. Tarr films the condition of this world and the stakes within it, and his storm and impending dark is what D.H. Lawrence called ‘the black river of dissolution,’ the ‘black river of corruption… the silver lining of life rolling on and quickening all the world to brightness, and on and on to heaven , flowing into a bright central sea…’ which is where no humanity stands. Humans are left bereft. St Augustine writes: ‘ the great river flowing forward , as it always does, passing through many places, washing, always, through some new tombs of the dead.’ Tarr films the new tomb forming as the storm passes through. In such a perspective time and life are blown away, are becoming entirely beyond our understanding. A tiny shift of circumstance, and the values and lives making sense of them, collapse into mirage, illusion, and pass away.

Pausanias in Holderlin’s ‘The Death of Empodocles’ tries to deny this flux in which everything passes away. ‘Pass away?/But it’s enduring, like the stream the frost/has fettered.’ Tarr’s film shows the frost turning to water, shows that intellects such as ours cannot comprehend the absolute river of becoming, and understands that this incomprehension is often felt as a catastrophe. Immutability is ‘fine comfort for hibernators and hearth-squatters’ writes Nietzsche. Tarr ‘s two characters are both hibernators and hearth-squatters of sorts. They are presented as being at the limit of subsistence. The material squalor of their lives and the fruitless, uncreative adaptation to these barren circumstances is nevertheless more than nothing, infinitely more, and as in Beckett there is an inevitable pull towards them. Their fate, we recognize, is ours when we see ourselves stumbling around like in a mirror. There is an inertia that can’t be eliminated in lives. Then it is a wintry life where everything stands still, and is sterile. The great storm is thawing this wintereisse. These are characters who have let their spirits lie down to sleep and freeze up time. The howling gale that now assaults them throughout the film is ‘a destroyer who breaks the ice with wrathful horns.’ Borges writes: “Time is the substance of which I am made… Time is a river that sweeps me along, but I am the river.’ It is a storm that brings them to their doom but they are storms, never a harbor, never a resting place or final thing, and this is what the film is about.

The horse is an abyss. It seems right from the opening moment that it is part of the storm. It moves through space and time as if rolling forward the beginning of being, bending the path of eternity, rolling that wheel of being with the momentous knowledge that everything dies, everything blossoms again, eternity runs through each year and grain of sand. Strangely the horse, this Turin horse, is at the centre point of the film and then spreads out into everywhere else when finally enclosed in darkness and invisibility. To see the abyss Tarr shows it not just as if through a window but also standing above it, bearing a risk, the depth of suffering you encounter when you do so, and below it , as it surges on through ultimate depths of space, so it seems, an abyss opening up as it moves along the road through light and dust. Tarr asks that we participate at the brink. Consciousness is not a peculiar residue, an inner glow that is private and of a special object. Tarr understands that film is essentially an act of ostension. What are the depths of the film, those of eternity, the abyss and how can Tarr – how can anyone – film them? Even if they are dispositions of the world they elicit experiences in the audience, the experiences are in turn identified through the qualities of the things perceived. This is what he films. The horse, the dwelling, the bearded man, the young woman and her book of hell, the storm, the well, the visitor, the gypsies and the darkness are how we glimpse the abyss, eternity, the great soulful depths.

The horse is the essence of the storm. The storm realizes the potential of the horse. Only in the final form of the storm can the horse be understood. And vice versa. The horse refuses in the last scenes. It refuses to eat and drink. It refuses to move. It is shuttered in. It is removed from sight and becomes the darkest place. What it becomes is therefore part of the issue. At the start it is a strong force but enslaved, harnessed to the cart and lashed. Its potency, its dunamis, is signaled by the length of the opening shots of the horse moving as some inexplicable energeia, striding towards an equally mysterious completion. This is Aristotelian, and requires importing a notion of completion that isn’t grounded in anything we see. Rather, it is a partial understanding of what Tarr wants to show, a half-way house towards defining traits. As the film moves along these feel more like a culmination rather than an intrusion of interpretation. But the catastrophe is precisely located at the point where culmination is finally revealed as illusion, and once whisked away, there is nothing left, and in the film this is the weird dark where Sartre’s ‘nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being, like a worm.’

Tarr strips his narrative of a side. The element of an anti-fable is like this: any ‘side, be it in or out, occurs in the fable afterwards to restrict the meaning to something we might already have known. But here the world is given at a sinister twist away from that. Here there is little language, little by way of action, little development of drama. There is no slow reveal coming along. It is as if all the drama there could be was already there at the start in a huge pressure. Yet what is gathered into the abyss at the end is not identical to what was known at the start. There are spells at work. We see the woman at one point at the window looking towards the storm. She is a pale ghost wearing a mask that is horrified. It freezes the blood to see her face in the window. There is a quality of annihilation in that look, and an existence that is on the edge of existence, a small durance, terrible in its absolute stillness, a spectre of nothingness. It is a strange and distant image. Sometimes I go back and watch the image and feel pity.

The face is the product and producer of judgement, and this face at the window raises spontaneous feelings of dread too. The storm seems at that point to be the face, a localized vortices which in its one damned thing is everything. What scares us is what we imagine the face is seeing. What the face sees is either behind us or, more terrifying, in us. Or is identical with us. This is the primitive fear captured in the panto routine where we scream – ‘It’s behind you’; it’s Manet subjecting the observer of the painting A Bar at the Folies-Bergère to the twisted perspective of actually being what is over the shoulder, the devil in the mirror; it’s what Shakespeare gives us off stage in the murder of Duncan ‘in the microsecond fright, after the fatal blow’, as Ted Hughes recounts it. It’s what we suppose in the final moments of the modern horror film ‘Insidious’ and is the essential premise of the classic horror ‘The Exorcist’. What is climbing into the skin of the film, through the abyss that is the horse and the storm, is an incomprehensible and outmaneuvered threat of madness. The sparce life, it’s puritan weight embodied in the poverty, the dismal suffering of daily living, is nevertheless seen as a unifying force. The two characters eat and sleep and continue together throughout the overflowing catastrophe that blows around them. They don’t break apart. Even at the very end there is a touching but futile incomprehension that binds them before annihilation.

The routines of dressing and eating and gathering water from the well are like buried fragments whose meaning is not clear. They offer only a partial destiny, like the Urgesetzes Seil, a rope of deeper, first laws, that we find in Wagner and the Norse legends of the Norns, whose edicts are only half- glimpsed and often forgotten or misunderstood. What is visible is the elemental, physical power of disruption and violence. The disintegration of primal matter and order comes in the storm. The storm therefore has an inspired poetic reality in the work, a daemonic entity that takes the formlessness of Cordelia’s ‘word within a word’, that of an all-suffering ascetic Christ/woman. And the woman herself is at sea in the storm, cast into a tree of nerves, a twisty abandoned heath of swirling dust and howling that recalls savage, mad Lear and the witches out on the heath in Mabeth. In Lear the fool’s last words are spoken late at night, ‘I’ll go to bed at noon’, responding to Lear’s ‘ We’ll go to supper I’ the morning.’ What time is it when the storm has broken through? As in the time when the Fool replies to Lear, it is midnight, as it is perpetually in Macbeth after the slaying of Duncan. (Until the destruction of Macbeth of course). Tarr’s characters are ‘poor, bare, forked animal[s]’ but unlike Mad Tom they cannot find a rebirth in themselves, because the film quits them way before that is even a possibility.

Tarr’s film is, as is Endgame, a reworking of Lear, but one that cuts away before redemptive themes are even glimpsed. They evaporate away. Where are we here? More or less the mid point of Lear, where the darkest, bottomest pitch is reverberating, moments before any scent of spiritual illumination and rebirth are sniffed. The kingdom is mad, gone with the wind, the soul roars out a hint of its nature, torn into pieces, all vegetation gone, a swamp of wild writhing dementia and increasing voicelessness, coherence, increasing darkness. Somehow Tarr places the Nietzschean visitor into a monologue that merely increases the sense that his voice is the magical, supernatural mythic double of the chaos outside – one that is coming inevitably but in no particular way. It is an eerily lit story, one that we listen to with desperate concentration, perhaps glimpsing something of the agonies of a tragic drama, something that can enforce a reassimilated meaning to the stillness inside the house and the wildness out. We hope the warning the stranger tells will move mysteriously through the unfolding images of Tarr’s film, but the hope is lost. It’s a ghost warning that fades away, despiritualised. It becomes almost political and suppressed.

And the visiting wild strangers who are banished in hysterical violence, their wild threats and curses reverberating through the desolation that follows, the dried up well, the failing horse, light, world, we see them from too narrow an angle, too mobile a position so that their chaotic and threatening presence seems to include us as mute, passive onlookers. They are part of the storm, an infection of it with language attached, a trick to pull you in and confront dread that remains inchoate, complex and irrational. The event, singular and terrible, is compressed so that a puzzle remains like a grim afterimage or portent. The woman who witnesses this is not revealed in the successive hysterical moments but is rather another part of the mystery unfolding. Immediately afterwards the well is empty and the erosion of the world continues. The film doesn’t define a psychology, nor a society, rather it defines a philosophical idea, or better, an anti-philosophy. Here the idea of any sort of continuation or supreme vehicle for understanding, is removed and replaced by an impending obscurity that is freighted with extreme, even ecstatic emotion. Hence it is non-systematic, and without any interest in morality either. Before it we are dumb and inert, perhaps made realer through experiencing this, and beyond the temptation to mean anything. A previously existing and functioning network is breaking down, slowly but implacably, before our eyes and all we are asked to do is wait and witness it. It’s a slow and long period of waiting, but it brings to heel those who want a nihilism to be a belief or concept. Nihilism is that Nietzschean, Heraclitean process, closer to an event than concept. In this film it’s a condition that never started and wont stop going on.

Tarr’s film is odd in that its succession of images don’t ever seem anything but realist, except for the very opening sequence of the horse powering along. That strikes home as if a dream sequence of immense omniscience. But it is an image and omniscience the film is moving away from, until in the end we have cramped cell-like interiors and miniature shots of lanterns and flames, that sort of thing. That it’s shot in monochrome lends a sort of auteur art-house mood but more than that it just keeps it all at a distance, so we get enough time and space to approximate the actual catastrophe. The end is bleak and enigmatic. The characters cannot imagine doing anything that isn’t real to them, and so they fall into the abyss of the disappearing world not resisting and uncomprehending. They are not sad faces at the end. She seems fearful and he confused but resolute. On the other side of their faces is just the same. At the other side of the darkness is whatever is beyond. When we talk of nothingness we ought to be wary of the tendency to be assertive. Assertion seems another thing embedded in language, so perhaps a serious ironical tone is also in the monochrome pigments. A catastrophe befalls us like this. It is when we can no longer know who we are or what is the world. All propositions fail just after asserting the self-defeating proposition that all propositions fails. When done with, this film erases itself and it’s auteur. After the darkness that engulfs the fiction comes the blank black light of whatever happens inside the cinema, then outside in the world, which is where the film imperfectly and improbably still flickers. As with Beckett it clarifies the way in which we are the wretched. It haunts us with a kind of immense grief.

Tarr imagines a metaphysical catastrophe, and by metaphysical all I mean is William James’s ‘nothing but an unusually obstinate effort to think clearly.’ The metaphysic is Nietzschean. Galen Strawson limns the picture with sinuous, characteristic deftness, and finds a correlate with modern physics: ‘Everyday objects—from stones to brains—are collocations of patterns of energy, diaphanous process-entities whose existence involves a constant interchange with the quantum vacuum. It is literally correct, in the standard model, to say that everyday objects are partly constituted by the quantum vacuum—by the particle-pair creation and annihilation phenomena of the quantum vacuum. To this extent, the idea that processes or events require some sort of substance that is in some way distinct from them, and in which they can go on or occur, has collapsed. There is a fundamental respect in which the whole object/process/property/state/event cluster of concepts is entirely superficial. No important metaphysical questions turn on these differences, only questions about everyday human categorizations.’ Strawson finds Nietzsche’s ideas hospitable to the ideas of the Buddha and Heraclitus as well as this vision of post 1925 physics.

Nietzschean metaphysics is what Strawsen labels an ‘identity metaphysics, writing; ‘‘Where ordinary thought and vast tracts of metaphysics find distinctness, discreteness, (numerical) difference, identity metaphysics finds unity, continuity, identity. Identity metaphysics is Identitätsphilosophie. Spinoza is one of its exemplary practitioners, followed by Schelling, the inventor of the term, and Hegel, the great synthesizer of the ideas of others (they say he never had an original idea of his own). Nietzsche’s thought lies in the same tradition (because it is true, not because it is a tradition), although he also lays great stress on differences of force or power (or rank).’

Nietzsche writes: ‘One should not wrongly objectify ‘cause’ and ‘effect’, as the natural scientists do … in accordance with the prevailing mechanistic doltishness which makes the cause press and push until it ‘effects’ its end: one should use ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ only as pure concepts, that is to say, as conventional fictions for the purpose of designation and communication…’ (BGE21). Frank Ramsey agrees when he writes in 1925: ‘… the whole theory of universals is due to mistaking … a characteristic of language … for a fundamental characteristic of reality’. Whitehead at round about the same time agrees, writing: ‘… all modern philosophy hinges round the difficulty of describing the world in terms of subject and predicate, substance and quality, particular and universal’.

In the long drag of Tarr’s film we watch and wonder and ask: Who will survive the catastrophe? No unitary self, because there isn’t one. What is this enormous and profound storm but the disintegration of the illusion that they are unitary selves, complete and finished. That they have come to they see themselves as fixed atomistic points is the point of view that is being erased. That they are being brought into the storm, a vortex of continual movement and change, a process that roars through their world and themselves. The catastrophe will leave nothing but a black lozenge of existence. We are used to thinking perhaps that this is negative but it needn’t be. What Tarr shows is the breakdown to something ‘…no longer communicable, at least not in print ….I often feel ashamed that I have said so much in public already, that should have never been put in front of an “audience”, even in more worthy and deeper times’ as Nietzsche writes to Franz Overbeck in 1885 about his philosophy.

The property of the horse and its power are now seen as one and the same. Objects and processes are now seen as one and the same. Cause and effect are no longer distinct. Laws of nature are just the way things are, rather than ontologically distinct things governing the objects. Everything is one kind of stuff and that stuff may all be suffused with mentality. Reality is itself, and always processing.

And so Tarr depicts the collapse of what we need, what we take as real and irreducible, fundamental to our lives. He presents us with a world of objects that seem rooted in nothing but themselves, their matter, and separate from the time they’re in, a world of lumps that the storm replaces with force points, a deeper reality of a dynamic matter where all objects are processes. Even where the characters desperately try and fend off the catastrophic darkness, distinguishing the particular from its properties , the link between property and particular is too intimate to speak of a relation between them. In Strawson’s words, ‘ the thisness and the nature are incapable of existing apart from each other.’ The language of the film erodes itself. Thinking in the form of language, the collapse of that form annihilates the world. When Tarr takes us to that exact point the film ends as a rectangle of black nothingness.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, June 7th, 2014.